11 Fascinating Facts About the War of the Roses

The Battle of Towton (1461) during the War of the Roses.
The Battle of Towton (1461) during the War of the Roses.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It's no secret that George R. R. Martin looked to history for inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire, his epic, still-in-process series of fantasy novels that serves as the basis for HBO's Game of Thrones, which will end its eight-season run in May. (The Black Dinner of 1440 and the Massacre of Glencoe, for example, served as inspiration for the series' infamous Red Wedding.) One of Martin's main influences was the War of the Roses—three decades of bloodshed and animosity between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, two rival branches of the English royal family. So before the fight for the Iron Throne subsides—at least on TV—let's take a look at its real-life historical counterpart.

1. The War of the Roses started in 1455 and lasted until approximately 1485.

The War of the Roses wasn't one long, continuous conflict; it was a series of minor wars and civil skirmishes interrupted by long periods that were mostly peaceful, if politically tense (which is why it's frequently referred to as the Wars of the Roses, rather than the singular War). After the opening battle—the First Battle of St. Albans—broke out on May 22, 1455, there wasn't another major showdown until the Battle of Blore Heath erupted four years later. And the years between 1471 and 1483 were a time of relative peace in England. Things did heat back up in 1483, as the Yorkist ruler Richard III began clashing with Henry Tudor, an exiled Lancaster nobleman. Tudor prevailed over his foe at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and then took the crown as King Henry VII. Two years later, in 1487, the Battle of Stoke Field essentially ended the Yorkist cause, which some consider to be the true end of the War of the Roses.

2. The War of the Roses was initially known as "The Cousins' War."

The conflicts didn't come to be called the "Wars of the Roses" until long after the actual fighting stopped. Throughout the 15th century, the House of York used white roses as an emblem, and by 1485, the House of Lancaster had become associated with red roses. In the 1560s, a British diplomat discussed "the striving of the two roses." William Shakespeare baked the convenient symbolism into his play, Henry VI, Part I, (which was most likely written in the 1590s). Later, a 1646 pamphlet called the medieval York/Lancaster struggle "The Quarrel of the Warring Roses." Then David Hume's 1762 History of England popularized the term "Wars Between the Two Roses." From labels like these, the now-ubiquitous "War of the Roses" phrase evolved.

3. The War of the Roses was caused by a struggle between a deposed King Henry VI and his cousin Richard, the Duke of York.

King Henry VI of England.
King Henry VI of England.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After England lost virtually all of its French holdings in 1453, King Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown. The Lancastrian monarch seemingly lost his ability to speak, walk unassisted, or even hold up his own head. (What happened is unclear; some suggest that he was stricken by a depressive stupor or catatonic schizophrenia.)

Henry VI clearly wasn't fit to rule, so his cousin Richard, the Duke of York, was appointed Lord Protector and Defender of England in his stead. York's political muscle unraveled when Henry VI recovered on Christmas Day 1454; his desire to regain power set the stage for the First Battle of St. Albans a few months later.

4. After being killed during one battle in the War of the Roses, the Duke of York had a fake crown placed upon his severed head.

During the May 1455 battle at St. Albans, York met and defeated Henry VI's Royal Army with a superior force of 3000 men. In the aftermath, the king was forced to restore York as England's Lord Protector—but York didn't hold the job for long. After some violent clashes against the supporters of Henry VI's biological son (with whom the Duke was a rival for the throne), York died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. As a final insult, his disembodied head was mounted on Micklegate Bar in the city of York—and decorated with a phony crown made of paper (or possibly reeds).

5. Pope Pius II tried—and failed—to ease political tensions during the War of the Roses.

The Pope wanted to enlist King Henry VI as an ally in a potential crusade against the Ottomans. Unfortunately for His Holiness, the War of the Roses was keeping Henry plenty busy at the time. So in 1459, Pius II sent clergyman Francesco Coppini to England with instructions to ask for the king's support—and if possible, negotiate peace between Houses York and Lancaster. Instead, Coppini became a Yorkist sympathizer who vocally denounced the Lancastrian cause.

6. Early guns were used in some battles of the War of the Roses.

Swords and arrows weren't the only weapons deployed during the War of the Roses. At archaeological sites dating back to the 1461 Battle of Towton (a Yorkist victory), broken pieces of early handheld guns have been recovered. It's suspected that the devices would have blown themselves apart when fired, making them dangerous to wield. Regardless, primitive guns also saw use at the 1485 Battle of Bosworth.

7. After defeating Henry VI, King Edward IV was betrayed by a former ally—and his own sibling.

King Edward IV
King Edward IV.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edward, one of the sons of the slain Duke of York, deposed Henry VI in 1461 to become King Edward IV. One of the men who helped him do so was Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. But the earl soon had a falling out with the new king and, in 1470, Warwick helped put Henry VI back on the throne after teaming up with Queen Margaret of Anjou and George, the Duke of Clarence (who was also Edward IV's brother). The Yorkist king went into exile, but he returned with a vengeance in 1471.

Despite their rocky past, the two brothers reconciled and worked together to overcome the Warwick-led Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Barnet. This victory, and a later triumph over Queen Margaret's men, enabled King Edward IV to regain the crown. (Sadly, in the end things didn't work out for the Duke of Clarence—he was executed for treason in 1478.)

8. Edward IV's wife, Elizabeth Woodville, took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey twice to escape enemies during the War of the Roses.

One reason why Warwick soured on King Edward IV was because he didn't approve of the young ruler's chosen spouse. In 1464, Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville, a widowed mother of two who was five years his senior (and whose first marriage had been to a Lancastrian knight). From October 1, 1470 to April 11, 1471, during Edward's exile, Elizabeth and her daughters holed themselves up in Westminster Abbey, where they declared sanctuary. During her stay, she gave birth to a son, Edward V. Elizabeth would return to the Abbey for another prolonged stay that began in 1483. Edward IV had died earlier that year, and by taking sanctuary in the Abbey once again, Elizabeth was now looking to protect herself and her children from a man she deeply mistrusted: The late king's younger brother, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester.

9. Two young princes disappeared during the War of the Roses.

In the wake of King Edward IV's death, the Duke of Gloucester—who'd been a high-ranking Yorkist commander at the Battle of Tewkesbury—was named Protector of England. Then on July 6, 1483, he was crowned as King Richard III. His claim to the throne was not uncontested: Edward IV had two sons, aged 12 and 9, who were staying in the Tower of London at the time. No one knows what happened to the boys; they were last seen alive in the summer of 1483. King Richard III is frequently accused of having the boys murdered, though some suspect that they were killed by another ambitious royal, Henry Tudor. It's also possible that the boys fled.

10. Henry Tudor ended the War of the Roses through marriage.

The York Rose, the Lancaster Rose, and the Tudor Rose.
iStock.com/Rixipix

After his forces defeated Richard III's at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII—some say at the exact spot where Richard III was killed. After he was officially crowned, Henry VII wed Elizabeth of York, King Edward IV's daughter, in 1486.

This marriage is part of the reason Houses Lancaster and York are synonymous with roses today, though both used many non-floral emblems (loyalists of Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI, identified themselves by wearing swan badges, for example, and Yorkist Richard III made a white boar his personal logo). After his marriage to Elizabeth of York, Henry VII was able to portray himself as the grand unifier of two enemy houses. To symbolize this, he introduced a new emblem: A white flower with red trim called the “Tudor Rose.”

11. Richard III's body was found under a parking lot in 2012.

 King Richard III.
King Richard III.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard III was not destined to rest in peace. In the centuries following the Battle of Bosworth, the dead king's body went missing. In 2012, an archaeological team rediscovered the former king's remains beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. DNA testing helped confirm their identity. Richard III's well-documented scoliosis was clearly visible in the spinal column, and it was concluded that he had died of a blow to the skull. The much-maligned ruler was given a ceremonious reburial at Leicester Cathedral in 2015.

Find Love With These 18 Old Halloween Fortune-Telling Tricks

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Before trick-or-treat, the sugar lobby, and mass-produced David S. Pumpkins costumes took over Halloween celebrations, fortune-telling games were one of the most popular ways to enjoy our spookiest holiday.

This was especially true in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Halloween is rooted in the festival of Samhain, the Celtic New Year, in which worshippers believed the gates between our present reality and the netherworld briefly shut down. It was a night for consulting the spirit realm for advice—especially on love and marriage. In fact, Halloween was just as romantic as our modern Valentine’s Day, if not more so.

With Lisa Morton’s exhaustive book The Halloween Encyclopedia as our guide, we’ve cobbled together some of the best romantic divination techniques from the Celtic New Year celebrations. Keep in mind that as far-fetched as some of these fortune-telling games may seem, they were largely viewed as playful parlor games—opportunities for friends to set potential suitors up, or for a bashful lad or lass to spark a courtship. When playing a game, “a clever hostess will send two unsuspecting lovers by different doors;” Martha Orne suggests in Hallowe’en And How to Celebrate It, “they are sure to meet, and not infrequently settle matters then and there.”

Perhaps it's time to bring a few of these back?

1. Acquire a newborn baby. Encourage it to sip from a bowl. Afterward, return the baby. Retain the bowl and fill it with water, then cut all 26 letters of the alphabet from a newspaper or magazine—or write the letters on 26 slips of paper—and place the papers into the bowl. Leave it to sit overnight. The next morning blindfold yourself, dip your hand into the bowl, and pull out the same number of slips as letters that are in your name. Using those slips, you should be able to spell the name of your future spouse. (You can thank the people of Newfoundland for this custom.)

2. Eat an entire salted herring, bones and all, in three bites. Do not drink water. Go to bed. In your dreams, prophetic visions of your future spouse shall appear. (Also possible: indigestion.)

3. Find a blackberry bush. Crawl underneath the branches. In the moonlight, you may find the shadow of your future beloved. (Also possible: blackberries.)

4. Procure two apple seeds. Wet the seeds. Designate one seed for “Love Interest A,” and the second seed for “Love Interest B.” Press the seeds against your forehead or eyelids. Wait. The first apple seed to fall will indicate the least faithful of the two suitors.

Cabbage
Lisa Morton

5. Trespass on your neighbor’s garden. Strap on a blindfold, and began searching for kale. Upon finding the vegetable, attempt to pull the kale from the dirt. The shape of the kale's root shall foretell your future: “A straight stalk foretold a tall straight handsome mate, and dirt clinging to the kale promised money,” Morton writes. (Don’t snicker: This divination was once a popular matchmaking tool in Scotland, and, if you’re of Scottish descent, there’s a chance that you owe your entire existence to a stalk of kale.)

6. Step outside and pluck a hair from your head. (If balding, skip to the next divination.) At nightfall, toss the hair into the wind. The direction the hair flies will indicate the direction from which your future spouse will come. In 1714, the English dramatist John Gay mentioned this custom in this poem:

I pluck this lock of hair from off my head
to tell whence comes the one that I shall wed.
Fly, silken hair, fly all the world around,
Until you reach the spot where my true love is found.

7. Spread a fine layer of cornmeal near your bed. (People with carpet can probably skip this one.) Sleep. In the morning, the name of your future spouse will be scribbled in the powder. (This bit of divination was supposedly practiced by children in the American South.)

8. Grab an egg, prepare a glass of water, and school yourself in oomancy! Crack the egg and carefully drip the whites into the water three times: The goop will contort to form the initials of your future beloved. (But be careful: Morton writes of a young man who was so disturbed by his eggy divination, he “drank heavily and became a beggar who committed suicide by downing laudanum.” The girls of Salem also attempted to read egg whites, and, well, we know how that turned out.)

9. Book a ticket to the Scottish Highlands, specifically to Ross-shire where this trick supposedly originated. Find a field in which the furrows run north to south. Wait for dark. Enter the field from the west, and gently walk over 11 furrows. Stop at the 12th, wait, and listen for your fortune: If you hear sobbing, you may die early; if you hear music, your future will be joyful. (And if you hear a man or woman grumbling about getting off their lawn, your future likely holds a trespassing charge.)

10. Find a snail. Go to the hearth, scoop up ashes, and scatter them across a plate. (Hearthless? Use flour!) Place the snail on the plate and go to sleep. In the morning, check the snail’s slime trail: It will have spelled the initials of your true love.

Limekiln
Lisa Morton

11. Locate the nearest lime-kiln. Then locate the nearest arts and crafts store and buy blue yarn. Throw the ball of yarn into the kiln while grasping the opposite end. Reel in the yarn. When you feel a tug from the other end, ask for the name of your future beloved, and a disembodied voice will belch his or her name. (This tradition originates in lower Scotland, where it was believed that mythical household goblins called “Brownies” lived in the kilns—and, well, everywhere else.)

12. Buy a knife and find a field of leeks. At night, walk backwards through the field, and stab one of the leeks with the knife. Hide, then watch. According to Celtic lore, your future spouse will walk through the field, pick up the knife, and chuck it to the middle of the garden.

13. Visit a farm and pull up a stalk of oats. If the stalk is missing the tiny seeds at the top—what the Scots called the pickle—then you’ll lose your virginity before marriage. (For people who have already sowed their oats, pulling up a stalk of oats is probably unnecessary.) The Scottish poet Robert Burns refers to this custom, alluding to a woman’s virginity as the “tap-pickle":

But her tap-pickle maist [nearly] was lost,
What kiutlin [fondling] in the ‘fause-house’
Wi’ him that night.

14. Attain a willow branch or wand. While holding it in the left or right hand, run around your house three times. Meanwhile, whisper, “He that is to be my goodman, come to grip the end of it.” During the third lap, the fetch—that is, the living spirit—of your future spouse will appear and grab it. (Willow is a interesting choice of wand, since it used to be a symbol of curmudgeonry. In the Scottish Highlands, placing a peeled willow wand on your door was a sign that you wished nobody to enter your house.)

Backwards
Lisa Morton

15. At midnight, scoop up a heaping spoonful of salt and insert it into your mouth. Do not swallow. Then light a candle, grab a mirror, and, while holding both candle and mirror in your hands, begin walking backward into the cellar. Watch the mirror. As you reach the bottom, you’ll see the face of your future spouse staring back at you. (According to the aptly titled Book of Entertainments and Frolics for All Occasions, “This is most easily accomplished if there be a tacit agreement that some cavalier shall be in waiting for the inquiring maid.”)

16. Place two nuts on a fire and recite these words: If you hate me spit and fly; if you love me burn away. If the nuts roll apart, you may separate soon from your spouse. If both burn, your relationship is secure. A similar divination involves placing two peas on a red-hot shovel.

17. It’s time to break out the Luggie Bowls! Place three bowls side by side: Fill the first with clear water, the second with dirty water, and the third with no water at all. Blindfold yourself and ask a friend to rearrange the bowls. Dunk your left forefinger into one of the bowls. If you choose the clear bowl, you’ll enjoy a happy marriage. The dirty water, on the other hand, indicates an unhappy marriage, and the empty bowl means no marriage at all. Robert Burns describes Luggie Bowls in a poem:

In order, on the clean hearth-stane
The luggies three are ranged,
And every time great care is ta’en
To see them duly changed:
Auld uncle John, wah wedlock’s joys
Sin Mar’s year did desire,
Because he gat the toom-dish [empty] thrice
He heaved them on the fire
In wrath that night.

18. Pour half a pint of high-proof brandy in a dish. Ignite it. Throw a handful of raisins, nuts, candied figs, and other tiny fruits into the blaze. Then gather a group of friends and attempt to remove as many items as possible, trying your best to toss them into your mouth without getting burnt. Whoever retrieves the most fruits and nuts is destined to meet their true love in one year. (In Britain, this game, known as Snap-Dragon, was mostly a Christmas Eve parlor game—Charles Dickens wrote about it in The Pickwick Papers—but, in the United States, it supposedly became a Halloween pastime.)

This list was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

6 Puzzling Anachronisms That Made It Into Shakespeare’s Plays

iofoto/iStock via Getty Images
iofoto/iStock via Getty Images

William Shakespeare was known for writing with a fabulous disregard for the rules of language. Not only did he regularly coin his own phrases, he also literally made up words—many of which are now in our discourse and dictionaries. And, considering how influential his work has been for the last five centuries, you’d be hard-pressed to find a scholar who thinks that the prolific playwright’s penchant for literary invention was anything but genius.

Having said that, the Bard did actually get a few things wrong. Because many of Shakespeare’s plays include historical figures like Julius Caesar and events like the Trojan War, we know they were set during pretty specific time periods. And while Shakespeare is certainly allowed to mention Niccolò Machiavelli in a play that takes place before Machiavelli was even born, it’s not exactly historically accurate.

What we don’t know for sure are the reasons behind the Bard’s occasional anachronisms. Did he include them intentionally to provide context and clarity for his audience? Or were they legitimate mistakes, because fact-checking was a lot more labor-intensive in the pre-internet era?

Since we’re now just a Google search away from knowing Machiavelli’s birth year and more, here are the details behind six of Shakespeare’s most surprising anachronisms.

1. The clock in Julius Caesar

In Act 2, Scene 1 of Julius Caesar, after the stage directions say “Clock strikes,” Brutus tells Cassius to “count the clock,” and Cassius says it “hath stricken three.” Though humans have been measuring time for thousands of years, clocks definitely didn’t "strike" while Caesar was alive. The first weight-driven mechanical clock was recorded in England in 1283, more than 1300 years after Caesar’s death. Before that, people used sundials or devices called clepsydras, which counted time by measuring water that slowly dripped in or out of a container. Given the late hour, a sundial wouldn’t have sufficed for this scene, and maybe Shakespeare felt that “Check how much water is in the bowl!” would bewilder his modern audience.

2. The doublet in Julius Caesar

doublet from 1580
A doublet, circa 1580.
Catherine Breyer Van Bomel Foundation Fund, Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

The clock might be Shakespeare’s most famous anachronism in Julius Caesar, but it’s not the only one. Earlier in the play (Act 1, Scene 2), Casca recounts to Cassius and Brutus how, after refusing the crown three times, Caesar pulls aside his clothing to offer the crowd his throat to cut. The clothing, however, isn’t the Roman military finery you’re probably imagining. Casca calls it a doublet, which is a type of fancy jacket popular between the 15th and 17th centuries—Shakespeare himself is sometimes pictured wearing one. Caesar may have been ahead of his time in some ways, but he certainly wasn’t fashion-forward enough to have predicted a trend that occurred more than 1500 years after he died in 44 BCE.

3. The billiards game in Antony and Cleopatra

In Act 2, Scene 5 of Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra invites her servant Charmain to play billiards. Considering that Cleopatra was born around 69 BCE in Egypt, and the earliest known mention of billiards wasn’t until 15th-century Europe, an apt response from Charmain would’ve been “Madam, what are billiards?” Instead, she declines the game due to a sore arm, and a mercurial Cleopatra declares that she’s lost interest and would rather go fishing (which, of course, has been around for much longer than billiards).

4. The mentions of Machiavelli in Henry VI

the prince by niccolo machiavelli
dcerbino/iStock via Getty Images

Niccolò Machiavelli made such an impact on society with his treatise The Prince that Shakespeare mentioned him in Henry VI not once, but twice—both with negative connotations. In Act 5, Scene 4 of Part 1, Joan of Arc tells Warwick and York that she’s pregnant with Alençon’s child to convince them not to burn her at the stake. At this, York exclaims “Alençon! That notorious Machiavel!” meaning that Alençon is essentially an immoral person. As you might remember from a high school history class, Joan of Arc eventually did end up burning at the stake in 1431.

Shakespeare’s next reference to Machiavelli occurs in Act 3, Scene 2 of Part 3, right after Henry VI is captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1465. Richard, whose brother Edward currently sits on the throne, delivers a lengthy monologue in which he vows to commit whatever heinous crimes are necessary to steal the crown for himself, “[setting] the murderous Machiavel to school.” In other words, he plans to take Machiavelli’s “The ends justify the means” mantra to such a high level that he’ll basically be showing its founder how it’s done. However, in 1465, Machiavelli was definitely not yet “murderous.” In fact, he wasn’t even born until four years later (and decades after Joan of Arc's death), in 1469.

5. The mention of Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare spins a tale of love and loss during the Trojan War, which is thought to have occurred in either the 12th or 13th century BCE. Aristotle, on the other hand, was definitely born in 384 BCE. So when Hector likens Paris and Troilus to the young men “whom Aristotle thought unfit to hear moral philosophy” in Act 2, Scene 2, he showed wisdom beyond his years … by several hundred years.

6. The gun in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

titiana and nick bottom from a midsummer night's dream
Edwin Henry Landseer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

What we now call gunpowder exploded onto the scene in China as early as 850 CE, and guns themselves were developed over the following centuries. Ancient as that may seem, it’s not nearly as old as ancient Greece, the setting for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Act 3, Scene 2, the jester Puck tells the fairy king Oberon how, when Nick Bottom’s friends see him with a donkey’s head, they act like wild geese “rising and cawing at the gun’s report.” In other words, they scatter in fear, much like geese do when a hunter fires his gun. Having said that, it’s hard to begrudge Shakespeare one measly anachronism in a play with fairies, love potions, and roguish sprites who can transform humans into donkeys.

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